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A Choirboy's Christmas 

by Michael Bowen

Despite the title, this isn't Eckart's first Christmas. It isn't even Eckart Preu's first holiday concert in the States, since he led such programs when he was associate conductor of the Richmond (Va.) Symphony.

To revisit Eckart's first Christmas -- and to understand the mingling of German and American tunes in this weekend's holiday pops concert -- you have to go back to the music of his German childhood.

"My Christmas memories start with being a member of the choir," says Preu -- in his case, the Dresdner Kreuzchor (the Cross Choir of Dresden). Every Christmas from the time Preu was 10 until he was 18 -- "it was really a boarding school," he says -- he performed with the choir. "We'd do two performances of Christmas music, back to back on Christmas Eve -- then we'd go back to the boarding school," he says. "We would eat together, and the cafeteria would be very brightly lit, and we would all get presents and we'd sing. And it was the most beautiful thing -- this is a very old school, and it has a quadrangle, and we would each carry candles and have a procession in and sing -- like monks.

"Then we would go back downtown, and it was very traditional, very beautiful. And people would be lined up at 4 am in the snow to hear the Christmas Mette, a kind of Nativity pageant with oratorio." Preu recalls "the choir and the organ and the orchestra and the actors -- except that Jesus is represented not by a human actor but just a single candle. And this thing never, ever changes. The acting, the music -- it's all the same, for hundreds of years. Because that's what people want."

In a holiday pops program, what people want are standbys like Stille Nacht ("Silent Night") and the 19th-century "Skaters' Waltz" -- which the SSO will duly provide this weekend. But Preu has also programmed "Kling, Glockchen, Kling" ("Ring, Little Bell, Ring"), which Preu describes as a kind of German "Jingle Bells" -- the lyrics describe how the most pleasing gifts will go to the most well-behaved children.

Another highlight of the concert's first half will be "Quempas," a 14th-century German choral work to be sung by members of both the Spokane Symphony Chorale and the Spokane Area Children's Chorus. Traditionally, "Quempas" (which begins in Latin with Quem pastores laudavere, "When shepherds would praise") is sung from the four corners of a church. At the Opera House, says Preu, "Plan A is to put two groups in the balcony and two downstairs. Plan B would be to have all four groups downstairs." Either way, the text of "Quempas" will be sung first in a fragmented way, "with the four sections of the chorale sharing the opening phrase, then the main chorus, then translated into English, then all four in unison." The call-and-response singing will seem to come at the audience from all directions.

"This was the most successful thing I did in Richmond," says Preu. "It's very antiphonal and absolutely gorgeous. For me," he jokes, "it's proof that Germans invented surround sound."

After intermission, a Giovanni Gabrieli canzone will get things started with a brass quintet shouting from the balcony. "Why it's there," says Preu, "is because back home in Germany, around the time of First Advent [four weeks before Christmas], all the marketplaces are filled with brass musicians playing Christmas music -- they'll be on street corners and up in the bell towers."

Thinking about home like this causes him to ponder the difference between American and German ways of celebrating Christmas: "For you, it's all happy-happy. For us, it's more thoughtful, pondering -- quiet and not so festive.

"These are just two different cultures," Preu continues. "Yours is built on ours," he says, with just a trace of cultural superiority -- "while we're stuck with our own stuff," he laughs.

The more American and festive half of the program -- less traditional and reflective -- includes "A Christmas Festival," Leroy Anderson's arrangement of Christmas carols made famous by the Boston Pops, and much of the music from John Williams' 1990 score for

Home Alone (in which, of course, Macaulay Culkin was defending his home during Christmas vacation).

The concerts this weekend will also conclude with an opportunity for an audience sing-along and with the crowd-pleasing "Let It Snow" -- but not before the evening's centerpiece, Alan Silvestri's Polar Express Suite, a seven-minute collection of themes from the current Tom Hanks movie based on Chris Van Allsburg's already classic 1985 children's book.

Silvestri is a heavyweight among film composers, having scored such movies as the Back to the Future sequels, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Lilo & amp; Stitch and many more.

The Suite, never heard as such during the movie, is a collection of snippets from the movie's score, heard in live performance for the very first time right here. So how did the Spokane Symphony nab a world premiere? Because Preu knows Conrad Pope, who did the orchestration of Silvestri's Polar Express score.

"It's very unusual, because it's just been published," Preu agrees. As we talk, Preu starts scatting and conducting an upbeat "bup-bup-bah" impromptu rendition of the Suite. "It's like the John Williams stuff," he explains, "very lushly orchestrated -- it has sleigh bells, glockenspiel, very lush strings, the woodwinds hold notes way up high. It's very upbeat."

In other words, very festive -- in the American manner -- and a long way from what the choirboys sang back in Dresden.

Publication date: 12/16/04

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